Dean Bill Kiernan of UMass Boston’s School of Global Inclusion and Social Development (SGISD) welcomed nearly 300 people from the education, health, nonprofit, business, and policy sectors to the Back Bay this week for the inaugural Building Inclusive Communities: Neighborhoods to Nations Global Conference.
“We know there’s much to be done” in the area of inclusion, Kiernan said, as he greeted Boston-area leaders and guests from as far away as Poland, Tanzania, and the United Arab Emirates. “We recognize these efforts are best done together and must also be supported by our communities at large.”
The two-day conference grappled with cultural, social, or political norms that permit various forms of exclusion across society. The group of experts exchanged ideas for solutions that would promote equal access to human rights, opportunity, and dignity for all citizens.
“Thank you for letting us dig a little deeper inside our own souls so we can discover what we need to do better,” Chancellor J. Keith Motley said in welcoming remarks. “Remember, it’s not about any of us in this room. Nothing that we are doing today is about us. It’s an unbelievable gift to the future, and what an amazing thing to be able to be a part of that.”
An introductory panel was charged with answering the question, “What is inclusion and why does it matter?” Kiernan moderated the discussion between Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, Maitreyi Bordia, lead social development specialist of the World Bank, and Robin Hambleton, professor of city leadership from the University of West England and author of “Leading the Inclusive City: Place-Based Innovation for a Bounded Planet.”
Oxfam America switched its focus from trying to solve problems of global poverty to examining the barriers to social inclusion. Oftentimes these barriers are the result of a socially accepted narrative that is morally wrong, Offenheiser said.
Political leaders may be uncomfortable facing some of the topics that must be addressed to ensure inclusion, he added.
“Don’t be intimidated by Goliath. David beat with him with a stone, not a sword or a club,” Offenhesier told the audience. “A lot of this is about institutions and institutional quality. … We’re not going to achieve inclusion if we have underfinanced and poorly performing institutions.”
Bordia referenced stratifications that exclude populations in her native India, such as caste, gender, and place of residence. She emphasized the fact that the “burden of history” and culture must be considered when striving to make progress toward inclusion.
Those working to include alienated groups must be wary of imposing a culture on people who reject it, she added, citing an example of tribal women who would rather die in childbirth than receive care in health centers.
“Social inclusion is not insurmountable, it is difficult, it is incremental, it is often two steps forward, one step back, and very often there are unintended consequences,” she said. “The work of social inclusion is never going to be done. This is going to be a work in progress for as long as we will be alive.”
Throughout the day, attendees participated in breakout sessions about engaging excluded populations in research, inclusive approaches to public health, corporations’ responsibility to promote community inclusion, the refugee integration process, strategic philanthropy, and other topics.
Thursday’s schedule culminated with SGISD’s second annual Beacon for Global Inclusion awards at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. The 2015 honorees include Dorothy Stoneman, founder of YouthBuild, which aids unemployed young adults and high school dropouts with education, counseling, and job skills training, and Partners in Health, a Massachusetts-based global health-care nonprofit focused on supporting poor and marginalized populations.
“The Building Inclusive Communities conference successfully represented the 50th anniversary and mission of the university, and the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development," Kiernan said. "We were thrilled that we successfully convened 300 individuals and experts from our communities and industries locally, nationally, and globally, to really think about pressing issues of inclusion and to identify new solutions. This rich dialogue could only happen through having such different perspectives in the room, which gets at the focus and goal of our school, and what we believe is essential to moving our society forward in years to come.”